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Early Childhood Development Post COVID-19

"Vulnerable children do not create their vulnerability, but rather their environments and experiences may make them vulnerable to poor and maladaptive functioning and wellbeing.” - quote from an early childhood grant application

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The COVID-19 Pandemic has spawned multiple concurrent crises (public health, economic, and leadership), exacerbated by systemic racism. In early March, tens of millions of residents responded appropriately and adopted Nonpharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) to protect themselves and their communities against the spread the novel coronavirus. Some of the measures, which ordered the closure of schools, childcare facilities, workplaces and public buildings, created secondary hardships that now challenge the wellbeing of young children and their families.

  • Loss of employment - The COVID-19 induced recession resulted in more lost jobs in three months than the US experienced during two years of the Great Recession. The current unemployment rate remains higher than the peak unemployment rate during the Great Recession.
  • Loss of childcare services - The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) estimates the potential permanent loss of some 4.5 million childcare slots. The fragility of our childcare system has never been more apparent. Zero to Three warns that the entire child care system is at risk of collapse.
  • Food Insecurity - Lauren Bauer wrote in a recent Brookings article, that “it is clear that young children are experiencing food insecurity to an extent unprecedented in modern times.” In the same article, over 40% of surveyed mothers with children under the age of 12 answered - the food that we bought just didn’t last, and we didn’t have money to get more. Evening news depicting mile long lines at food banks bare out the reality of food insecurity.
  • Homelessness - The Homeless Research Institute wrote recently that homelessness researchers Homeless Research Institute concluded that $11.5 Billion is needed for 445,000 new shelter beds to shelter the current homeless population. The report does not project the newly homeless due to the COVID-19 economic recession. CNBC reported that 32% of U.S. households missed their July housing payments. A U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey revealed that almost 12 million children in the U.S. live in a household that missed rent or mortgage payments. U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey

The science is clear, the first five years of a child’s life are critical to lifelong health and wellbeing. Excess stress, or toxic stress experienced by young children and their families can have debilitating effects upon those early years. Without question, overburdened and under-resourced families and their children are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress attempting to navigate continuous waves of economic, health and social challenges. These impacts are magnified when viewed through a race equity lens.

It is far too early for us to know what impact COVID-19 will have on early childhood development, but we can collectively help prepare for and mitigate harmful lifelong outcomes through strategies of resilience.
COVID-19 CHALLENGES

Surviving a pandemic is a challenging experience for adequately resourced individuals and families. Without adequate financial, medical, and social resources, the loss of employment, closure of schools and child care facilities make sheltering especially difficult. The National Governors Association reported recently that governors are reporting declines of 20-70% in child abuse and neglect reports. It is unlikely that child abuse and neglect have declined, but merely the shrinking of the network of potential reporters. A non-verbal signal, “Signal for Help” is being promoted to enable anyone experiencing the threat of domestic violence to get assistance.

COVID-19 has disrupted routines and relationships essential for healthy child development and well being. However until the virus is contained through strong public health measures, effective therapeutics or the development of a vaccine to attain herd immunity, healthy child development of our next generation is at risk. Fortunately, there are environmental and behavioral vaccines available to protect against the a daunting future. Analogous to an antibody response, these vaccines, like the Good Behavior Game, result in demonstrated resilience. The ability to adapt to the harmful social and emotional effects of COVID-19 can achieved through resilience.

ECOSYSTEM STRENGTHS

Local early childhood ecosystems focused and aligned with the clear objective of improving child and family well-being are well positioned to decrease harmful developmental impact of the pandemic on young and their families. Early experiences not only affect brain development, but serve as the foundation for behavior, emotional health, language, problem solving, reasoning and social skills. One exemplary ecosystem is the The Bridgeport Baby Bundle. Using a collective impact approach to improve child outcomes, specifically, focusing on children’s development in the first three years of life, the Bridgeport Baby Bundle focuses on six policy and systems levers for change:

  • Universal screenings to identify concerns related to maternal health as well as child development.
  • Early intervention to support infants and toddlers who have an identified physical or mental delay, disability, special need or whose risk factors place the child at high risk for delay.
  • Universal home visiting to support maternal/child health and parent development before and after birth.
  • Early childhood education opportunities to enhance children’s cognitive and social development.
  • Literacy development to support early learning and brain-building interactions between children and their primary caregivers.
  • Parenting supports to enhance parents’ understanding of the neuroscience of early child development.

It is through the work of ecosystems focusing intently on building protective factors shielding children from the effects of toxic stress and adverse childhood experience, that we can build resilience.

OPPORTUNITIES TO RE-IMAGINE

Looking past this pandemic, communities will have the opportunity to reimagine the manner in which they organize and optimize their systems in service to child well-being and their families. Our systems have infrequently been designed to serve children and their families holistically. Historically, each service has been extended with an overriding concern for efficiency, with a singular intent supported by a unique funding source, often without digital supports to ease customer interaction. Our data systems are rarely integrated to provide data driven decision making or the ability to easily gauge whether program outcomes are being met. Can we reimagine a future where children and their families are placed at the center of our service systems. How do we enable a 360 degree view?

Our primary system of extending care to non-school aged children is irretrievably broken. Return to a pre-COVID-19 child care system will not be sufficient or adequate to serve the tsunami of toxic stress related conditions. Fortune reported recently that the cost of center based the childcare exceeded college tuition in 28 U.S. states. A similar view of our child care system will be necessary to insure that this critical infrastructure is present to support the its essential workforce and the children and family they serve. Indiana reported that some 40% of the child care industry workforce receive at least one social service from the state. The workers and their families are also at risk of financial sustainability. The concept of universal child care is a policy option to be considered post-COVID-19.

Can we begin the process of examining our present systems and determine with a race equity lens how they can better serve under-resourced and over burdened families? Not only can we, we must. This work is collective work, and at its core, it is relational. Frederick Douglas is reported to have said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair a broken man (woman)”.

SUMMARY

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of moderating a panel that discussed The Effects of COVID-19 on Early Childhood Development and Education. I’ve enclosed a link to the Webinar Recording. Panelists were Myra Jones-Taylor, Chief Policy Officer at ZERO to THREE, Nicole Norvell, Director of the Indiana Office of Early Childhood and Out of School Learning, and Dr. David Willis, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy. This was an important initial conversation. What we know is that the last twenty weeks our have been extremely challenging. For children, the impacts may not be known for quite some time. In order to assure healthy child development outcomes, we will need to reimagine our current systems to address known pre-COVID-19 deficiencies. Additionally our early childhood ecosystems will need to incorporate what we know about brain science. Building resilience will require more community systems like the Bridgeport Baby Bundle. Our future is now. The steps we take today are necessary to begin the requisite work of creating a brighter pathway for future generations.
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